Baseball fans focus on the first pitch of the season, fishermen await opening day on the trout streams but flower-lovers know it’s spring when the frothy pink cherry blossoms open for their brief season of glory.
Viewing spectacular massed displays of blooming cherry trees is a ritual we adopted from Japan, where this uplifting pastime is known as hanami. Ornamental cherry trees (as opposed to the kind that bear fruit) are native to the Japanese islands where they are collectively known as sakura, meaning “a tree on which God sits.”
It’s hard to beat the kind of poetic passion the Japanese feel for nature, but Americans are no slouches at cherry blossom time. Something like 750,000 people are drawn annually to Washington D.C. to see the national collection of cherry trees stretch a vibrant canopy of cotton candy pink around the Tidal Basin and along the Potomac.
D.C. may have the most famous display nationwide, but New Jersey can top it. There are actually more blooming cherries at Essex County’s Branch Brook Park – some 5,000 by the latest tally vs. 3,750 in the capital. Set amid 360 rolling acres between Newark and Belleville in a park designed by the firm of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the cherry trees are an impressive sight during peak bloom. Some varieties are already in bloom, a few weeks earlier than usual, and the show continues through mid-April.
We wouldn’t have this treasured collection but for Caroline Bamberger Fuld, sister of the department store mogul Louis Bamberger. Inspired by the display in Washington, she donated 2,050 trees to Branch Brook Park in 1926. The trees have an average life expectancy of about 40 years and over time, some have succumbed to disease and old age. But the park, undergoing a $20 million renovation in recent years, has been planting new trees for the last decade, including 832 saplings in 2010 and 1,000 more last year, to bring the numbers back up.
There are 28 varieties in the park, including weeping cherries and those with single and double blossoms. Arborist crews spend more than 1,000 hours every year pruning, treating and caring for the collection, chores that keep these rather delicate trees in good health.
The Branch Brook Park Alliance, a group much like the Central Park Conservancy in New York City, is a partner in preserving the park and supporting the annual cherry blossom festival, Bloomfest, scheduled this year on April 24. For details on events which begin April 9, see the Essex County Parks website.
Less well known but equally remarkable is the cherry blossom display in Cherry Hill. The installation of a two-mile stretch of flowering cherries along Chapel Avenue didn’t have a powerful county government or a formal alliance behind it but rather was the work of a small group of citizens. It was a grass-roots, volunteer effort to elevate the reputation of this South Jersey town. Begun more than 40 years ago, the planting project now counts 1,460 trees.
Since 9-11, the annual blooming of the trees has been dedicated as a memorial event honoring those who perished in the terrorist attacks. See Cherry Blossoms in Cherry Hill for details.
One last location in the region worth visiting at cherry blossom time is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 900 Washington Ave. -- in Brooklyn, of course. The site has only 220 trees but the collection is among the most diverse with more than 40 varieties. Learn more here.
If you wanted to choose a tree for your home, it’s a good place to see first-hand the flower color and growth habit of a wide range of ornamental cherries. There’s an elaborate Cherry Blossom Festival, too, scheduled April 30 – May 1, with Japanese-influenced performances and events. For more information see bbg.org or call 718-623-7200.
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